Today on Project Gutenberg #35

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

The Empress Frederick: A Memoir by Anonymous

At first I thought this book was about a ruler named Frederick who presented as a woman and used the title of Empress, and I’ll admit I was a little disappointed to find that this was not the case. So what have we got here?

The first thing you need to know is that “Empress Frederick” was a nickname given to Princess Royal Victoria, the oldest daughter of the much more famous Victoria. This book, published in 1913, is a biography of her life. And what a surprisingly remarkable life it was! Born in 1840, she grew up close to her father, Prince Albert, and adopted his liberal political ideology. When she was 17 she married Prince Frederick of Prussia, the future Emperor Frederick III. From there, her life became an elaborate story of personal tragedy, family drama and political machinations. The royal couple’s liberal politics put them at odds with powerful leaders like Otto von Bismarck, who were more conservative, and tensions eventually got so bad that most of the Prussian/German government was plotting against them, including their oldest son. When Victoria finally became Empress of Germany, her reign lasted only ninety-nine days: Frederick was dying of laryngeal cancer, and once he was gone, Victoria was forced out by her son William II.

The memoir takes all of this and more and turns it into a lively, fascinating narrative, frequently supplemented by primary sources from Victoria and her contemporaries. The text, while occasionally a bit stiff, is remarkably accessible to modern readers overall. It’s also dense with information and strikes a good balance between its many subjects, switching from intimate snapshots of individual lives to broader subjects like German unification, nineteenth-century media coverage, the effect of the Crimean War on English/Prussian relations, etc. The story grows into a wide-reaching epic with dozens of characters and twists and turns aplenty. But it manages to remain exciting and compelling throughout, largely because of how much it focuses on the personalities of the people involved.

“By heredity, by training, by all the circumstances of their lives, Royal personages form a caste apart,” the author writes in the preface of the book. “And though their lot may seem to some persons enviable, it is not often realised how great are the sacrifices of happiness and contentment which they are called upon to make as the inevitable consequence of their exalted position.” Even today we’re still compelled by stories about the trials and tribulations of real-life royalty. Successful TV shows like The Crown and Victoria are proof of that, to say nothing of tabloids and social media. And I think the author of this book understood why people have always latched on to stories like this: we want to learn about the inner lives of these people and find some common humanity with them. That’s why we get fascinating passages like this one, which describes Victoria’s work setting up a military hospital in 1870:

By the Crown Princess’s orders, the very simplest and plainest appliances compatible with health and comfort were used. Thus the necessary furniture was all of varnished deal. By her wish, too, a great effort was made to give a bright and homelike appearance to each ward, and this, like the special ventilation, was quite a new idea to both German patients and German doctors. In the corners of each ward stood large evergreen shrubs, and on every table were placed cut flowers in glasses. Whenever the Crown Princess received a personal gift of flowers, she immediately sent it off to the hospital, often bringing a bouquet and arranging it herself. Nothing in the Victoria Barrack was used which could conceal any dirt; for instance, the crockery was white and the glass plain.

The Crown Princess attended the military hospitals daily. She went through every ward, and spoke to every patient; and she was quite as regular in her attendance on the wards containing the French prisoners as she was on those where the German soldiers lay. In this way she came into personal association with ordinary people of a class of whom Princesses see as a rule little or nothing. With many of the soldiers who were then tended under her supervision and care she kept in touch long after the war was ended—indeed, she was always eager to help in after life any of those whom she had known at Homburg, or who had fought under her husband’s orders.

But the Crown Princess did far more than the work associated with her name at Homburg. It was owing to her promptness and her energy that a long line of military hospitals was rapidly organised along the whole of the Rhine Valley.

The book is also wise in its frequent use of primary sources, often allowing the figures involved in these events to speak for themselves. The author’s narration provides the context and framework, and the sources breathe even more life into the story — a combination that makes for an excellent read.

I didn’t know much about Princess Victoria before I skimmed this book, but this made me want to seek out more information on her life. She had a complex and interesting life that makes for a great story, and this book really captures the essence of that. I highly recommend you check it out.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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